I was walking silently on the banks of Ganga. The holy river was serene and idle. The sun was just setting, and people were slowly pouring in. Soon, the entire place filled with an aroma of incense sticks and flowers. Little lamps and soulful hymns started complementing each other, as the ghat filled with life. There, in front of me, I saw a cacophony unfold, as the city of Varanasi come to life.
My trip to Varanasi took place during an unhappy phase in my life. Boredom had set in, life was mundane, and I was slowly slipping into a routine that I wanted to break free off. Once, when I just couldn’t get out of bed to go on with the day, I remember reading about the mystical city of Varanasi. The article talked about a soul-cleansing experience in Varanasi, and how Varanasi had changed how the writer felt about life. The was pretty much enough to convince my depressive state, and I soon found myself packing my packs and heading to the oldest city of India.
I have often heard that Varanasi is one of the most chaotic, magical and overwhelming cities of India. There is so much happening in the city, that one often feels lost and disconnected to reality. Yet, I had high hopes, since Varanasi is also a highly religious and spiritual place. In the Hindu religion, Varanasi is a highly auspicious city. It is said if you die here, then you will be free from the cycle of birth and rebirth thus attaining moksha. Because of this belief, you will often find many old age homes at Varanasi.
Varanasi is also the oldest city of India and is quite historical. The beauty of this city is further heightened by the presence of the holy river- Ganga. This ethereal river makes Varanasi look ever so beautiful.
When I first landed in Varanasi, I was instantly taken aback by the sheer chaos that unfolded in front of me. It was like a circus. People were running around, cars were blaring their horns, a herd of cows was blocking my way, and from nowhere a woman just dumped her bucket of garbage! It was like mayhem. It is like all of my five senses were engaged.
I quickly made my way through the narrow lanes and reached my hotel.
After freshening up, I decided to venture out and understand this quirky city.
When in Varanasi, it is best and also somewhat challenging to walk. However, there is no better way to know a city than walking, so I started my journey.
A lot of what happens in Varanasi takes place in the narrow lanes. Most of these narrow lanes open up to huge ghats. I have often heard, that if you want to feel the essence of Varanasi, then walk through the little alleys. As I started walking, the culture of Varanasi started blossoming in front of me.
The alleys are filled with all kinds of shops, with vendors screaming at the top of their voice to attract the visitors. There are houses on one side, and little temples keep popping up. At times it got impossible to walk since from buses to bikes, to carts to cows and bulls, everything moves simultaneously here. At times, I even lost my sense of hearing due to the horns that were blowing. Yet, in those alleys, I found the life of the people. I spoke to the locals, picked up anecdotes and realized how happy and content these people were in their little houses with horns blaring at the side.
One of the most defining factors of Varanasi is its ghats. Located by the banks of River Ganga, these ghats are the life and soul of this city. I first reached the Manikarnika Ghat, which is essentially the place where corpses are cremated/burned. Since Varanasi is a sacred city, you might encounter many corpses along the way or being brunt. While it is quite morbid at first, it is part of life and the city. When I reached the Ghat, I saw both sides of the coin- life and death. I watched as the smoke rose from the pyres, and I saw little children playing by the river.
Also, I saw relatives mourning and crying, and I saw families enjoying an ice-cream. I heard priests chanting in front of a corpse, and I found priests chanting in front of the holy river.
It was quite surreal – like two different realms were taking place simultaneously, and I was a silent spectator in the midst of the two. In some ways, it was eye-opening for me. I looked at both of the events and realized how precious living the life we have is. At that very moment, Varanasi managed to show me the meaning of life, while showing me how fickle and whimsical life can be. It showed me, that we need to live every moment we have right here right now, and in some kind of a mystical way, as I saw the corpses being brunt, I was reborn at the ghats of Varanasi.
After having that epiphany of life I felt at peace. It was like a heavy burden had just been lifted, and my life was filled with vigorous and happiness again. As I was basking in my new found happiness and realization, the ghat slowly started to fill with little diyas and lamps.
It was time for the Ganga Aarti. I made my way to the Dashashwamedh Ghat, where the Aarti takes place. As soon as the Aarti starts, hundreds of people carrying little diyas with flower petals come up to the ghat. The priests start to sing the bhajans, as everybody starts to join in, making it all the more riveting. Women wearing colourful sarees, children with lollipops, men with a little red mark on their forehead and eager tourists – you can find everyone here.
As I too joined in on the song and watched the trance-like Aarti engulf all my senses and take me to a plane of higher existence. It feels so enchanting and amazing to just stand there, watch the little diyas float away and light the river, and to take part in something so powerful. It is like having an out of body experience, and it is impossible not to fall in love with Varanasi then and there. I was quite amazed by the aesthetic scene that unfolded in front of me.
After witnessing the Aarti, I made my way to the famous Brown Bread Bakery to round off my trip.
My experience at Varanasi was quite transformative. It showed me a path and made me a better person. Varanasi might seem a lot when you first come here, but it does have some magical spell that makes you used to everything after a day or two. You start to feel at ease and find peace even amid chaos.
This is what separates Varanasi from the rest of the states and makes it as beautiful and captivating as it is. While you might not have the same experience as me, however, you will surely feel something stirring inside you when you come here. So, open your mind and let the power of this magical city sweep you off your feet.